In recent weeks, the sheer scale of the failure of the West in terms of building what might be recognised as functioning democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq has become ever more painfully obvious. I've become suspicious that the problem lies with the American attitude to constructing a civil society, combined with the failure of Europe to provide an alternative example.
If you are genuinely intent on changing a nation for the better, you really do need to understand the social construct of that nation. Why does it favour democracy over dictatorship? Does religion play a greater or lesser role in cultural and social life? What factors impact on social cohesion? I sense that recent American administrations, especially Republican ones, have failed to grasp the importance of proper research, and in some cases, really don't care that much. After all, American democracy has proved to be such an example to the rest of us... with its inclusiveness (the amount spent by British political parties in 2005 wouldn't fund a gubernatorial race in California), transparency (voting machines with dubious codes, recounts decided at the pleasure of the Supreme Court rather than by actually counting ballot papers...) and plurality (how many different political parties have elected someone to the national parliament in the last fifty years?).
And yet the view is that a democracy must look vaguely familiar. This flies in the face of all of the evidence, and tends to be honoured more in the exception anyway. For example, Singapore is considered to be a democracy and it is, after a fashion. One party has been in power since independence, and tends to respond badly to even the most rudimentary challenge from a barely tolerated opposition. India is the world's largest democracy yet can be somewhat chaotic in terms of practice.
On the other hand, until very recently, the men of Appenzell in Switzerland met in the town square, swords in hand, to debate the issues of the day, and that was cantonal government. Democracy develops best when it has examples to be influenced by, when debate emerges from within, rather than by being imposed by outside forces.
If we must insist on invading a country to 'improve' it, we need to be far more honest about what we hope to achieve, and how we propose to do it. The debate over whether or not to invade Iraq was a farce, with both the Bush administration and the Blair government promoting different reasons for doing so depending on what polls showed to be popular from week to week. They failed to convince their own people as to their sincerity, so how did they think that the people of Afghanistan and Iraq were going to buy into the supposedly bright new future?
In the places where democracy has flourished in the past two decades, there has either been a tradition of democratic government (most of Eastern Europe post-1989 and South America come to mind) or democracy has come about after the emergence of popular movements. In the latter case, it tends to emerge slowly, as in Jordan and other more liberal Middle Eastern nations.
However democracy emerges though, it tends to do best where the local populace have a genuine say in how it is constructed, rather than where they have a model imposed upon them by an outside, rather unsympathetic force. And that is where Europe needs to do more. If we are to rely on the Americans for muscle, then we must provide the means to build viable, representative civil societies, teaching people the basic building blocks of democracy, encouraging diversity of the press, helping to build education systems for the young, and providing them an example, to follow or not according to local taste. Why not provide university education to the potential leadership of tomorrow, so that they can go back to their countries and work to build freer communities. We used to do that quite successfully in the days leading up to independence in our former colonies with, admittedly, mixed results.
But most of all, we have to set an example in the way we manage our democracy. I firmly believe that one of the key reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union was the increasing inability of the Communist Party to suppress the messages coming from the West. Once it became clear that the democracies were not the terrible places that Poles, Rumanians and Ukrainians had been told to expect, expectations emerged that the control economies could never meet.
By your actions, ye shall be judged, and not necessarily by the people you might expect. The building of civil societies isn't glamorous, and it isn't quick. But in the long run, it is cheaper, safer and more likely to protect our people from the threat of terrorism. Not so much a war on terror as a campaign against ignorance, conformity and oppression...